Conservation advocates call for new introductions in northern Florida and Georgia
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Wildlife conservation advocates say the record number of Florida panther deaths due to collisions with vehicles highlights the need to protect more habitat in Southern Florida.
Two more panthers were killed this past week, bringing the total for the year up to 26, or one every other week, on average.
Florida panthers once ranged from Arkansas and Louisiana eastward across Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and parts of South Carolina and Tennessee. Although male panthers have traveled to other parts of Florida and even to Georgia in recent years, the breeding population is now confined to South Florida, where it ekes out a living on less than 5 percent of its original range.
”Florida panthers are dying on roadways they have to cross in their day-to-day lives because they’re increasingly squeezed into smaller fragments of land between developments,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “These beautiful cats are under siege from out-of-control growth and threatened by inbreeding.”
Introducing more panthers to to the swamplands between Florida and Georgia would broaden the weakening gene pool of the population, helping to ensure long-term genetic diversity, according to Robinson.
In 2009 the Center filed a scientific petition seeking the designation of critical habitat for panthers in South Florida, followed by a second petition in 2011 calling for reintroduction to establish a second population in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected both petitions, even though the agency’s own recovery plan calls for protecting habitat and establishing three viable, self-sustainable populations of at least 240 panthers apiece within their historic range in the southern United States. Florida panthers are thought to number between 100 and 160 animals at present, in a single population.
“The Florida panther desperately needs more habitat protection and a second population center in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge,” said Robinson. “More can be done to save these great cats, but it has to be now, before it’s too late.”
The 2008 Florida Panther Recovery Plan, written by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, calls for protection of remaining Florida panther habitat in South Florida. But existing measures have failed to keep pace with the development of thousands of acres in recent years.